It takes a great deal of determination to overcome the obstacles COVID-19 has thrown at the Arts industry this year. Happily, Andrew Wailes and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic have just that. Undaunted, they reformatted the 14th edition of the RMP Aria Competition in a way that allowed performers from Victorian regional areas, interstate and even overseas to participate, in addition to making the finalists’ performances available to anybody who has access to the internet and is willing to pay a small amount of money to enjoy the whole RMP presentation multiple times.
One measure of the success of the digital format can be seen in the record number of entries the competition managed to attract this year. The adjudicators, Sally-Anne Russell, Andrew Raiskums, Stefan Cassomenos and Andrew Wailes (Chair), were faced with the difficult task of sifting through all those entries, filmed remotely in a variety of formats and under differing physical circumstances and social restrictions. It was a far cry from the usual level playing field of Melbourne’s Deakin Edge acoustic and the services of Stefan Cassomenos, whose pianistic genius makes compelling musical sense of orchestral scores transcribed for piano. Considering the vast experience of these adjudicators, however, absolute fairness could be assured.
This year was also unusual in the number of male finalists. Of the chosen eight, we had three sopranos, three baritones, a bass baritone and a tenor. The new format also allowed us to hear excerpts from the performances of the two Reserve Finalists: counter-tenor Hamish Gould and bass Jack Stephens. To have Stephens sing the Bach aria “Ich habe genug” accompanied by a small complement of strings, oboe and organ was an unexpected bonus. Apart from this and Elizabeth Anderson accompanying Amelia Jones on harpsichord for Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” from Harmonia Sacra and Bach’s “Laudamus Te” from his Mass in B minor, singers performed with pianists.
The number of different composers featured was also an unexpected but welcome aspect of this year’s competition. Not unexpectedly, Bach was number one choice, with Mendelssohn and Handel following close behind, but we also had pieces by Orff, Mozart, Purcell, Puccini, Rossini, Brahms, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Dvorák. Louise Keast actually sang “My heart is beating wildly” from Saint Ludmila in Czech – perhaps a first for this competition – following up with a nicely sustained Brahms “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” from Ein Deutsches Requiem and a highly dramatic Rossini’s “Inflammatus est” from his Stabat Mater. Contrasting works that displayed the ability to sustain smooth legato lines and vocal agility characterised the choices of all finalists.
A further major point of difference this year was the absence of a live audience, resulting in no audience participation in the form of a People’s Choice Award – usually a point of much excitement and speculation. Undoubtedly, viewers would have had their favourites. Although I have not always completely agreed with adjudicators’ decisions in various competitions, the justification for those decisions was generally obvious. Prior to announcing the prize-winners, Andrew Wailes described what the judges were looking for: “Appropriate repertoire for the individual voice, good presentation, good pitch, clear diction, communication of the text and understanding of musical styles, solid vocal technique and an affinity with the emotional message being conveyed in the context of the music being performed”. Hard to argue with that set of criteria.
When I first saw the line-up of soloists, I thought Andrew O’Connor would have an excellent chance of winning. He has had extensive experience as a professional singer in oratorio-style repertoire, including many performances in Melbourne, where he has been both a soloist and a mainstay of several leading Australian vocal ensembles. His performance of the recitative “For Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth”, and aria “The people that walked in darkness” from Handel’s Messiah, followed by the recitative and aria “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” from Bach’s cantata Ich babe genug fulfilled the judges’ criteria and made him a worthy winner.
I usually give my audience vote to the singer who is not necessarily “The Best” singer but the one who has touched me the most. In this case, it was 27-year-old Melbourne tenor, Joshua Oxley. He did have the benefit of the Athenaeum Theatre with a professional technical set-up and Raymond Lawrence as his accompanist on the Kawai grand, but these advantages were very minor compared with the rapt attention he gave to the recitative “Mein Jesus schweigt” and aria “Geduld! Geduld!” from Bach’s Matthäus Passion, and Britten’s “O Soft Embalmer of the Still Midnight” from Serenade for tenor, horn & strings. With excellent diction and beautifully evocative, sustained passages ending with a soft final note in the Britten, he embodied the atmosphere of each piece. Much and all as I enjoyed James Young’s gorgeous baritone and his stirring “Trumpet shall sound”, the other main contender for my vote was Amelia Jones. Urgent, sincere and with sweet pure tone, she was vocally, musically and physically persuasive – as convincing in her Virgin’s Expostulation as anyone could wish.
When announcing the prize-winners, Andrew Wailes provided concise, illuminating summaries of the adjudicators’ decision making. Due to the online format, the People’s Choice Award was replaced with a Judges’ Commendation, which was given to Melbourne baritone, James Emerson. The Conductor’s Encouragement Award was given to Amelia Jones “for her crystalline performances of Purcell and Bach”; Karina Bailey was awarded Third Place “for her polished performances of Orff, Mendelssohn and Mozart”; Runner Up was Joshua Oxley “whose performance was notable for a profound sense of gravitas and intensity throughout two technically demanding and contrasting works by Bach and Britten”. This year’s winner, Andrew O’Connor “demonstrated a praiseworthy combination of excellent technique, exemplary presentation, glorious even tone throughout [his] entire range and consistent elegant musicality and accuracy in [his] performances”. Prize-winners gave short acceptance speeches to thank all concerned.
Before these announcements and the scheduled archival performance of John Rutter’s dynamic Gloria, filmed at Deakin Edge at the conclusion of the 2017 RMP Aria final, we had a special surprise: a unique recording of I will be the Light by American composer Gerard Custer. To a track of Andrew Wailes conducting with Chris Nankervis at the piano, each member of a 20-strong RMP Virtual Choir had to record their own part, which was later mixed. The text, which describes looking forward to a bright future after dark times, could not have been more appropriate, and was sung with suitable fervour and commendable precision and balance.
The event ended in a mood of celebration as brass, percussion, organ and full-bodied voices revelled in Rutter’s Gloria. We might not have had quite the visceral experience of the original occasion, with the explosive sound generated by the combined forces vibrating through us in the two outer movements, but the exquisite subtleties of the central Andante with Calvin Bowman at the organ lost none of its emotional power.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic 2020 Aria Competition / Rutter “Gloria” published online on November 14, 2020.